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SUMMER / FALL 2019      © 2021 812 Magazine

New Albany's bicentennial

The people of this Ohio river town celebrate 200 years on the river.

William S. Culbertson, pictured at 64 years old in 1878 here, lost his father early, but Beth Nolan, a former librarian at the Indiana Room in the New Albany-Floyd County Public Library, says his diligence and work ethic served him well./ Photo courtesy of The Culbertson Mansion Historic Bed and Breakfast Inn

What makes a city rich?

It's not how much money it has, and it's not the amount of people living in it.

New Albany, located on the Ohio River from Louisville, is a town rich with people who are passionate about preserving the community's history.

When Joel, Nathaniel and Abner Scribner founded New Albany in 1813, they advertised it as an ideal place to live. In newspapers as far away as New York, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Connecticut, they stated that the town "affords a beautiful and commodious harbor."

The town grew, and by 1850, New Albany was the largest city in Indiana. Ten years later, more than half of all Hoosiers worth $100,000 or more called New Albany their home, making it the ideal place the Scribners intended it to be.

When the Civil War hit, New Albany - with its active Underground Railroad - served as an escape route to freedom-seeking slaves. After the war ended in 1865, Union soldiers - including a particularly determined former female slave - returned to families in New Albany.

Fast-forward 72 years to January 1937. The Ohio River Flood devastates New Albany, causing residents to seek safety in other Southern Indiana communities, such as Salem, Corydon and Seymour. The water began to recede at the beginning of February, leaving all that it had touched coated with inches-deep slimy muck. Some of New Albany's buildings became emergency centers, and the people must start over again.

And start over they did.

The valuable books in the New Albany-Floyd County Public Library were drenched and had been shoveled out of the basement and carted away. But in a few months, traces of the devastation nearly vanished.

The place that the residents called home was restored, and a floodwall was built to prevent future destruction.

"The resilience of the citizens have helped the growth of the city," David Barksdale, co-author of "History New Albany: By the River's Edge," says. "Through the Civil war, the Panic of 1983 ... Both World Wars, the Cyclone of 1917, all have created the backbone of this prosperous city that we call New Albany."

The city's recovery signaled the hard work New Albany pioneers and citizens put forward prior and before the Ohio River Flood. Due to the city's position on the river, shipbuilders had steady occupations during the mid-19th century. Around this time, enslaved fugitives took advantage of New Albany's Underground Railroad routes from Kentucky, which was then a slave state. New Albany helpers, both black and white, bravely assisted those seeking freedom.

In August 1854, businessman John B. Ford came to New Albany, and became the first successful manufacturer of plate glass in the United States and opened America's best-known glass manufacturing company - Libbey Owens-Ford. The city's glass-making industry was one of the initial kickstarters of New Albany's thriving economy.

Barksdale, the Floyd County historian, adds that 10 to 15 years ago, there has been a resurgence of community members working together to preserve the town's historic buildings.

"I think with the bicentennial right now on our door step, it's going to become even more apparent that we are so proud of our heritage and what we have left here and preserve what we have," Barksdale says.

With 200 years behind, and more years to come, 812 went back in time to explore the lives of three of New Albany's most compelling figures.

The Scribner brothers

Two years before the Scribner brothers called New Albany their home, oldest brother Joel Scribner was determined to find a western territory where he could plant a business and instill his roots.

In October 1811, three horses propelled the two wagons that carried five adults, Joel included, and 11 children on a 600-mile-plus trip from New York City to Cincinnati, Ohio.

On one fall day, miles away from the Indiana territory, Joel and his brother-in-law, William Waring, argued about stopping to rest on a Sunday. Joel, despite his determination to continue westward, believed Sundays should be a day of rest. Waring lost on out an argument that day - the two families and the tired horses rested and on Nov. 13, 1811, they arrived in Cincinnati.

The experience marks Joel as the religious brother of the three, while Abner's leadership in New Albany led him to develop the city's first mill.

And it was Nathaniel who petitioned to the state legislature that New Albany become the seat of Floyd County.

"Each one of them seemed to have had a somewhat different talent, a different approach to try to develop the town," Anne Caudill, co-author of "The Scribner House of New Albany: A Bicentennial," says.

After Joel and Waring tried their hand with a tanner business in Cincinnati, Joel called for his brothers to meet him. The brothers relocated together, passing Clarksville, north of the Ohio River, and Louisville, and founded New Albany on the heavily wooded north shore.

The town grew rapidly. People with skill and energy began settling in New Albany, and the Scribners built their house on Main Street, where it still stands today.

But not long after, New Albany lost a leader.

During the legislative session of 1818-19 in Corydon - where Nathaniel petitioned for the town to be a part of Floyd County - Nathaniel became sick and stopped at a stranger's house four miles outside of New Albany.

The following morning, Joel and his family were eating breakfast when a messenger knocked on their door.

"Yes?" Joel opened the door.

Nathaniel's illness got worse.

Immediately, Joel and a doctor left for Nathaniel, but he soon died from an unknown illness.

Joel and Abner, who were both married and had families, also died at a young age. Abner died of a fever in Memphis in 1827, following Joel's death in 1823.

Today, the brothers' efforts are still in effect. The Scribner House, built in 1814, is the oldest house in New Albany and is maintained by the New Albany-based Piankeshaw Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

"Many towns have old, old houses, but not many towns have the house that was actually by the person who founded the town and was always lived in by the family," Caudill, a member of the DAR, says.

The brother's funds for education are still being used as well.

Early advertisements for the city stated that about one-eighths of the purchase price of each lot be set aside in an education fund for children in New Albany. New Albany High School continues to hands out yearly scholarships, including the Scribner Family Endowment Scholarship Fund.

Currently, no known Scribner descendants live in New Albany.

"They knew this town would be great," Floyd County Historian Barksdale says. "And I think it can still be great. It is great."

William Stuart Culbertson

If there is something to be said about William Stuart Culbertson, it isn't that he led a scandalous life.

But according to newspaper articles, it was stated that Culbertson was the "largest tax payer in this city by odds, and beyond question the wealthiest man in Indiana."

Born in Pennsylvania, Culbertson is regarded as one of the most prominent individuals in New Albany's history who rose to the height of society. Today, the Culbertson Mansion, which he spent about $120,000 to build, sits on E. Main Street. The three-story French, Second-Empire mansion encompasses more than 20,000 square feet and contains 25 rooms. With a mansard roof made of imported tin, the house was said to require 30 servants to maintain the family in style.

Culbertson came from good stock, and the men married women from strong families. Although Culbertson - the second of six children - lost his father at a young age, his diligence and hard work served him well. Culbertson married three times.

His ventures include the Kentucky-Indiana Railroad Bridge Company. He also helped start New Albany's First National Bank as well as a utility company. He and his wife, Eliza Vance, were said to be stern parents to their eight children.

During letter exchanges with their third oldest, Mary Julia Culbertson, her mother sent a letter reprimanding her for what she mistakenly thought were bad grades while Mary attended college in New York.

Culbertson was left with a handful of children after Eliza died and lost two children. Two years later, Culbertson married Cornelia Warner Eggleston, who was 18 years his junior. They had two children together, including Blanche Warner Culbertson, who'd later be known as the "Scandalous Blanche."

While visiting her sister in Minneapolis, Blanche met the neighbor, Leigh Hill French. Within a few months, French proposed to Blanche, but her father objected, not thinking the "playboy spendthrift" a worthy match for his beloved daughter. "He changed his will to disinherit Blanche if indeed she did marry French," Beth Nolan, a former librarian at the Floyd County-New Albany Library, says.

Blanche met a British Dragoon captain in Europe, breaking off her engagement with French. She ran into French again at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, and the two eloped to New Albany. It's generally believed that Blanche won back her inheritance that fall. French spent her money before they divorced and had three sons.

But before Blanche's death in 1925, Culbertson made charitable contributions to New Albany.

Culbertson built a widow's home - a large brick building - on in 1873 Main Street for $25,000. "It was told that he would go in and provide food similar to what he'd have for his own family during the holidays," Nolan says. Later, Culbertson opened an orphan's home on Ekin Avenue in memory of his second wife.

According to newspaper accounts, Culbertson was one of eight taxpayers in New Albany whose property assessment was valued at $20,000 or more in 1861. Today, that's $493,339.

When Cubertson died at age 78 of congestive heart failure, his wealth was estimated at $7 million, according to his obituary. Currently, no Culbertson descendants live in New Albany.

Lucy Higgs Nichols

For three miles northwest of property along Grays Creek, Tenn., 24-year-old Lucy Higgs, a slave, traveled on foot during the night through fields, briars and underbrush with her young daughter.

Exhausted, she stopped at a soldier's camp in Bolivar, Tenn.

It was the summer of 1862, and freedom was just beginning to beckon slaves toward the Union states at the onset of the American Civil War.

The soldiers, who were part of the 23rd Indiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment, a New Albany troop, took in Lucy and her daughter, Mona. Lucy became the regiment's nurse for the next three years.

One of the few slaves to earn a pension, Lucy Higgs Nichols is one of the most celebrated figures in New Albany's history.

Pam Peters, author of "The Underground Railroad in Floyd County, Indiana" has done extensive research on Lucy's life. She says Lucy is one of the few African-American female slaves from the Civil War period that we know anything about.

"She was really remarkable," Peter says. "You could just feel how strong a person she was."

Born in Halifax County, N.C. on April 10, 1838, Lucy worked as a slave for the Higgs family. Before her eighth birthday, she lived in three states under various owners and guardians, was torn from her siblings and was treated like chattel, according to accounts of her life.

At one point, Lucy and her daughter, Mona, were valued at $1,400.

According to newspaper accounts published in 1889, Col. W.L. Sanderson, commander of the 23rd Regiment, referred Lucy to the Regiment's surgeon, Dr. Brucker, and became the regiment's nurse until the end of the Civil War.

"Her hand often lifted the canteen full of water to the lips of the wounded, her ear received the last message of the dying, and the soldiers looked upon her in the light of a friend," said one article in the Daily Gazette. "She shared their hardships and never grumbled, and in their triumphs she was among the happiest."

The newspapers also attest to Lucy's courage - fighting fearlessly alongside the soldiers at the heart of some of their bloodiest battles.

Peters says newspapers probably embellished the facts at that time, but that she helped the men who were injured.

During the Siege of Vicksburg in Mississippi in 1863, Lucy's daughter, Mona, about 5 at the time, died. The cause of her death is unknown, but Peters speculates that it could have been from malnutrition, disease or being too close to the battle.

"Aunt Lucy," as the soldiers called her, became one of the few honorary members of the Grand Army of the Republic Post. She stayed with the Regiment until they mustered out in Louisville, Ky., at the end of the war, the soldiers invited her to move to New Albany.

There, she met and married John Nichols, but they had no children. In 1892, Congress passed an act for Civil War nurses to receive a pension. Despite the 55 veterans from the 23rd Regiment petitioning on her behalf, Lucy's application was repeatedly denied. It wasn't until 1898, according to an article in The New York Times, that Lucy was one of few African-Americans to receive a pension. She was paid $12 per month.

She was held in such high esteem that after contracting the measles, a member of the 23rd Regiment took her in and cared for her as if she was a member of the family. She died at 77 years old.

The First Family Project

When 57-year-old New Albany resident Elizabeth Murphy discovered that she was related to a family who lived in Floyd County before the Scribners founded the city, she felt differently about her identity.

"Just knowing this family history, you're just kind of proud of the fact that these people were pioneers," Murphy says.

The First Family Project is part of the New Albany's Bicentennial celebration, and intends to honor the memory of the pioneers and first families who lived in the New Albany-Floyd County area before Dec. 31, 1840. Anyone who can prove descent from these early settlers is eligible for the recognition.

Murphy's family goes all the way back to 1812, when brothers Moses and John Scott came from Kentucky to Floyd Knobs, about four miles from New Albany. There, they helped founded Christian Hill Chapel Church, which still stands today on Scottsville Road.

"What they did was help establish a community," Murphy says. "Reading the history of them, just sound like good citizens who helped establish churches and communities and were hardworking. They made something of their lives."

Resident genealogist Doris Leistner says the city is tentatively planning to have a presentation of the certificates given to eligible applicants Oct. 3, 2013 at the New Albany Public Library.

To prove lineal descent from one ancestor, the admission fees are $10, and $5 for an additional first-family ancestor. To find out more, email sigsvolunteer@gmail.com or visit the Bicentennial website www.newalbany200.org.

New Albany Bicentennial events

To celebrate the town's history and its people, the New Albany Bicentennial Committee has planned a number of events, some which started as early as 2011. Here are a few 2013 events that represent the New Albany spirit.

The Wonderland Way Artists

When: Feb. 26, 2013

Where: Carnegie Center for Art & History, 201 East Spring String New Albany, IN 47150

More Info: Speakers Warren and Julie Payne from Payne Fine Arts, an online gallery based in Louisville, Ky. will talk following the opening of an exhibit at the Carnegie Center.

The Stained Glass Windows of New Albany

When: March 26, 2013

Where: The Carnegie Center for Art & History

More Info: One of the earliest industries in New Albany was glass manufacturing, a business that is still thriving there today. Speaker Greg Phipps will discuss the art of glass making.

African American Heritage Trail of Southern Indiana

When: April 23, 2013

Where: The Carnegie Center for Art & History

More info: The Corydon, Harrison County, Indiana native Maxine Brown is the scheduled speaker.

Annual Brunch at the Historical Society's Padgett Museum

When: 11:30 a.m. - 1:30 p.m. May 5, 2013

Where: 509 West Market Street, New Albany, IN

More info: $15 for admission. The annual brunch will have guests entertained by reenactments and live history performance detailing some of the city's notable residents.